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"Lost" and a view of disabilities

Lost's John Locke
Lost's John Locke

WARNING: This article may contain comments perceived as "spoilers" for those who have not yet seen the finale which aired on ABC, Sunday, May 23, 2010.

In the day after the series' finale of Lost, theories continue to abound as they did during its six years on ABC. Special websites and blogs continue to buzz about what exactly "this" or "that" meant on a show that will forever be remembered as enigmatic at least, philosophically provocative at best.

The series showcased a host of diverse actors from various countries, ethnicities and ages, each ultimately contributing to the creation or compromise of the civilizations they were building, had built or would build, depending on the season and sequence of years highlighted at that particular moment of watching.  People craving a linear sense of time would prove not to be "Losties."

John Locke, one of the more serious and profoundly mysterious characters of Lost, first appears lying on the ground after the plane crash, wiggling his toes. Viewers do not learn until several episodes later that Locke began his fateful trip in a wheelchair, having been rejected for a “walk about” in the Australian outback. It takes several seasons to learn how Locke became disabled, and there are moments when it appears he may not walk again due to some of the circumstances that befall him as he overcomes fear and becomes the hunter extraordinaire of the series.

As with most “realities” on Lost, Locke’s disability plays a mostly symbolic role. The plot line reveals that he survives being pushed from a high rise apartment building by his father, but with a crushed spine. The back story shows an angry and isolated Locke trying to overcome fears and differences that long preceded his accident and subsequent disability. The wheelchair serves as the barrier onto which Locke can project all the ways he is separated from those around him. When the plane crashes and he can walk, he tells no one of his former life. Like all the others eventually, Locke reinvents himself, being taken over finally by the “Man in Black” who must destroy or be destroyed.

For faithful viewers, the journey is a long and twisting one, full of flashbacks, flash forwards, and “flash sideways,” a unique parallel look at the lives of the characters without the island influence which simultaneously enlightened and confounded.

Dr. Jack Shephard, Mr. Fix-It Man and Hero, is certain he can repair Locke’s crushed spine in one of the “sideways” views of these characters. In a scene reminiscent of the pilot episode, Locke wiggles his toes, declaring that he has feeling. During the final scenes of the Sunday, May 23 finale, Benjamin Linus tells John Locke he no longer will need that wheelchair, and, for the second time in the series, Locke walks. The scene recalls the old black and white films of the 40s where the lame walk and the blind see after a dip in the waters of Lourdes.

The creators of the series lingered frequently on the edges of stereotyping behaviors for a number of the characters. They played with cultural assumptions and fears, with the blurriness between values held dear and evils abhorred. So, viewers have to accept that the use of dated tropes about disabilities most likely seemed no less dangerous to Lost’s writers and producers than any of the other lines crossed and criss-crossed over the course of six seasons. However, for a series that tested the limits of imagination, patience and viewers’ tolerance of ambiguity, resorting to the tired (and now disparaged) symbol of a wheelchair as defeat seems lazy and uninspired.

Disability as punishment has roots in mythology and medieval religious dogma. Locke gets “punished” by his father, the man to whom he gave a kidney. “No good deed goes unpunished” is a mantra known well by those reared in Catholic schools during post WWII. Locke believes he is punished, however, for having been naïve and weak, craving love and connection, states of mind and soul that the wheelchair represent for him as he bends beneath the authority of a mid-level supervisor at the box company he works for, just as he bent to his father’s false affections.

Later, in the jungle as he tutors Boone, the two discover “The Hatch” and plot how to open it. Locke experiences paralysis again as he orders Boone to climb aboard the small crashed plane holding the stash of heroin that intertwines with the story line of another character, Charlie. Locke cannot move in order to save Boone once the piper cub tumbles off the cliff and into the brush. Instead of using the opportunity to reveal his past to the newly forming society of survivors and friends, Locke retreats even further into himself and the jungle, using the distance to reinforce his belief that his differences are too great to leverage and use effectively with others.

In Season Six during the “sideways” glances at the lives of these characters who have no memory of their time on the island, Locke holds his own for a while against Jack Shephard’s advances to “cure” him. “This is who I am,” he explains. However, in the finale, Locke agrees to the surgery, perhaps, one wonders, more in deference to Jack who simply must “save” him. Once again, the wheelchair symbolizes the need for Locke to “let go, “to leave,” as is ultimately defined by the final scene inside a church no less.

The treatment of Locke’s disability as a symbol of his many flaws is one of the ways Lost unabashedly used traditional and stereotypical viewpoints as a means to create the arc of the story and this character. There was nothing especially socially enlightening about the choice to portray a character with disabilities in the series, in spite of the otherwise successful and artful writing using diversity to demonstrate the complexities of building a society with a seemingly disparate band of individuals and cultures.

On the other hand, the creators did do some work on choosing the type of wheelchair used, which seemed to be an appropriate choice for someone who was to have been permanently in the chair for a period of four years or more, complete with a raised and contoured seat cushion to prevent pressure sores. The chair was built for self-propulsion, allowing for easy-to-reach access to the wheels, slightly flared for speed and maneuverability. Similarly, the writing reflected well the discomfort and loneliness many people with disabilities experience in public as Locke sits on the plane (during one of the flashes), waiting for attendants to help him deplane. The contrast of Locke, the hunter chasing and catching wild boar, and Locke, passively waiting to be lifted out of his seat, conjures pity. It works, but disappoints.

So, while Lost is a winner in many ways, and will be remembered for its unusual and smart choices, this reliance on arcane and exploited views of disabilities leave the series exposed to a type of criticism that is not nearly as fun as the other musings of Losties that have fed the fascination and phenomenon for six years.

In metro Denver, contact Assistive Technology Partners (ATP) for a list of free programs and advice regarding independent living, mobility equipment and tools to assist with everyday living.  Experts with ATP have a listing of metro area resources specializing in wheelchairs, cushions and other products for comfort and independence.  ATP was established in 1989 through a federally funded grant and is today part of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, School of Medicine, University of Colorado.

Kathryn also writes as Denver Mobility Products Examiner and Denver Senior Care Examiner. Contact for inquiries, comments and to suggest future topics. Select “subscribe” to receive Kathryn’s articles on a regular basis.


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